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Roaming polar bears vandalize camps on St. Lawrence Island

Jill Burke
istockphoto

Marketing gurus for Coca-Cola might want to plan an ice-cold trek to Alaska's St. Lawrence Island. While the soft drink company is in the midst of a high profile campaign to help save polar bears from the fate of a warming planet, islanders in the Bering Sea are witnessing the bears doing just fine. Or rather, they are witnessing the bears doing what bears do, which this year means committing a string of destruction sprees as they lumber through hunting camps.

For residents of Gambell and Savoonga, the apex predators have become ace vandals this year, pushing, crashing and breaking their way through cabins and sheds at the villagers' whaling camps.

"There are a lot of polar bears this year, probably because we have solid ice close to the island," said Myron Kinkeenuk, a whaling co-captain from the village of Savoonga.

Earlier this month, he got word that his cabin, which is dozens of miles away from the village, "got it pretty bad."

Whalers noticed the damage when they began shuttling supplies and gear for upcoming bowhead whale hunts to camps far from the village. The bears had punched holes in walls, broken doors and windows and crunched storm sheds. Kinkeenuk had also heard that one cabin had evidence of a bear getting on the roof.

It's the first time in recent memory that Kinkeenuk has heard of bear break-ins at camps on the south side of the 1,791-square-mile island in the middle of the Bering Sea.

Now, in addition to carting gear to their camps, whalers are packing repair kits: plywood, two-by-fours, window frames, window panes.  

The bears also appear to be equal opportunity menaces. Camps used by residents of Gambell, the island's other town, have also been hit. Angela Morris, who works for the city, said her husband discovered damage at her grandmother's cabin a few days ago. A bear appeared to have gone in one window and out another.

Villagers from both communities say bear sightings seem to be on the rise.

"They are everywhere," said Melvin Apassingok, the polar bear or "nanook" commissioner for the Native Village of Gambell. As recently as Tuesday, large bears were spotted wandering on the ice and smaller ones were visible near a beach, he said.

No one knows exactly what's drawing the bears to St. Lawrence. It could be harder ice around the island -- it's been a long, cold winter in the Bering Sea -- gives the bears an easy traveling surface to get from the pack ice to land. Others theorize recent winds have summoned the bears, believing that polar bears travel against the wind, thus leading them to the south side of the island. Yet another theory is that an opening in the ice, called a polyna, that's developed close to the island is acting like a fast food dining spot for bears. Seals congregate at openings in the ice, where they come up for air. And where there are seals in the Arctic, expect polar bears.

Apassingok believes the burglar bears that damaged the camps were searching for food.

Many whalers remained in their camps Thursday, making it difficult to assess how many cabins were actually broken into. Reports from Gambell and Savoonga indicate several.

While St. Lawrence islanders may feel more bears are hanging around, the federal agency that monitors polar bears hasn't documented anything unusual. "There are expected to be bears in these areas at this time of year," said Bruce Woods, a spokesman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage.

Polar bear sightings often rise or decline with the presence or absence of polynas, he said. It could also be that some of the bears are moving to the ice after abandoning their dens, or they smelled something that lured them into camp, or that they are simply passing through.

Regardless of what's brought them to St. Lawrence, "any of these things that we have heard of them doing are not unusual," Woods said. Bears are curious, opportunistic feeders who spend a lot of time wandering.

Where they are hunted and where they are tagged changes year to year, he said.

So far, hunters from St. Lawrence Island have killed seven bears in 2012, according to Fish and Wildlife Service data. Last year, 45 polar bears were taken in subsistence hunts across the state.

Because they are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, polar bears are subject to federal protections. There are no reliable estimates for the population count of the Chukchi-Bering Sea stock of polar bears, but scientists believe there are at least 2,000 of them. Only Alaska Natives are allowed to hunt them for meat or to use their fur for clothing and handicrafts.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com